HARP SEAL – Pagophilus groenlandicus


Harp seal facts: Harp seals got their name from the harp pattern on their back. Adult males and females are light silvery gray with a black face. In males, the harp marking is black. In females, the marking may be broken into smaller patterns. Each seal measures about 5.6 feet (1.7 meters). Males weigh about 297 pounds (135 kilograms) and females about 240 pounds (109 kilograms). Harp seals have a thick layer of blubber that protects them from the cold and stores food energy. The front flippers have strong, sharp claws for hauling out of the water and moving across ice. The back flippers function as oars for swimming but cannot be turned forward for walking.

Geographic range: Harp seals live in the Arctic and the North Atlantic Oceans. They breed off the coast of northeastern Canada, off the east coast of Greenland, and in the White Sea off the northwestern coast of Russia.

Harp seal habitat: When not foraging or migrating, harp seals live on ice floes in the open sea. They breed and molt on offshore pack ice. They forage, search for food, under the ice or in open water.

What does harp seal eat: Harp seals feed on a variety of fish, including capelin, cod, and herring. They also eat shrimp, crabs, and squid.

Behavior and reproduction: Harp seals feed and travel in large groups. They are playful, porpoising or making arcing leaps over water, like dolphins and sea lions. They are excellent divers, able to stay underwater for thirty minutes at a time. They vocalize underwater and on land.

Females gather on pack ice in late winter to give birth to single pups and nurse for about two weeks. Soon after, each cow mates in the water, then returns to sea, leaving her pup permanently. Within those two weeks, the pup grows from about 24 pounds (11 kilograms) to about 80 pounds (36 kilograms). After another two weeks, it sheds its white downy coat, replacing it with a shorter silvery gray coat. They learn to swim and find their own food. After mating, the adult males leave to feed at sea, hauling up on shore to molt for about a month before continuing their northward journey.

Harp seals and people: In the 1970s and 1980s, pressure from conservationists caused the closing of American and European markets for seal products. The seal trade has continued, with new markets in Russia, China, Poland, and Ukraine bringing in millions of dollars for the fur alone. In addition, seal genitals are marketed to Asian markets as aphrodisiacs (aff-roh-DEE-zee-acks), substances that are supposed to increase sexual desire. In 2004, the Canadian government announced an additional quota of 100,000 seals available for hunting for an annual total of 350,000 seals.

Conservation status: Harp seals are not a threatened species.